"I Won't Dance"? Don't ask me. I feel so absolutely stumped on that score; it's like I went and bumped my head on a door. The new Oliver Hailey play that opened yesterday afternoon at the Hayes defies rational explanation, though several rash tries might be made.
Dom, the central character of the three, is first observed swinging a wheelchair round and round in a dim, eerie light indicating, as we only gradually surmise, that he is a cripple who imagines he can walk. How he became crippled isn't explained; he was never in a war and has never held a job.
At the same time, a red light keeps flashing into the room. Cops are outside. There's been a brutal double murder here. Enter Lil, an attractive young woman who says she's just gotten in from New Mexico. It's Lil's sister and the latter's husband, Dom's brother, who have been killed and cut up. Did Dom do it, or Lil? Or maybe Kay, a hooker hired on a regular basis and paid by check by the dead brother to take care of disabled Dom.
By late in the second act, Dom has confessed to the police, who don't believe him. Maybe he's confessed so that his inheritance, which only now we learn is his and not Lil's, will go to Lil, whom he loves but who prefers to live with a Pueblo Indian named Silverhead in a New Mexico pueblo. Kay, who keeps sashaying in and out, finally gets the heave-ho.
All this and so much more is related in an odd combination of stilted and natural talk, all freighted with meaning, one guesses, but overweight.
David Selby tools his chair about expertly, switching to crutches and steel leg braces at one point for a change of pace, and deftly slides out a collapsible hidden bed he and Kay use for their trysts. He even, again in eerie light, glides about the floor with Lil to the tune of "Dancing in the Dark," a scene without which the play's title wouldn't be as applicable.
Gail Strickland wears a vacant look most of the time as Lil, who must not only respond to Dom's sarcastic and often idiotic observations but find things to do on her own - things like picking up a picture, fingering this and straightening that. Arlene Golonka has a much better time of it as Kay, a happy hooker who has been fired from many jobs and now works days for an insurance firm, but prefers prostitution because you can't get fired from that. Kay's good for a couple of laughs, anyway.
The flamboyant director Tom O'Horgan is remarkably restrained here, possibly because the play itself is crazier than anything he might attempt. Bill Stabile's set is California sleek and impersonal. Marty Pakledinaz' costumes are unnecessarily dowdy-looking for the lissome Lil and amusingly flashy for Kay. Craig Miller's lighting is an appropriate combination of the spooky and plain.
David Merrick produced "I Won't Dance." He also produced "42nd Street." Go see that.
There are some playwrights who are obviously talented - perhaps even more than talented - yet with whom someone cannot relate. If that someone is a person, this is bad luck for the person. If that someone is a critic, it is bad luck for the playwright. Sorry.
Oliver Hailey's I Won't Dance opened at the Helen Hayes Theater yesterday afternoon - whoever imagined that the producer David Merrick would ever make his opening night at a Sunday matinee? - and it showed skill, talent and, to my mind, a mildly boring style and a complete inability to suggest life in terms other than cliches and truisms. Of course, cliches and truisms are always right - this is how they became cliches and truisms - but their reiteration is scarcely worth the price of a theater ticket. It isn't surprising then that the show closed today after the opening performance.
I Won't Dance was about cripples - about a specific cripple fighting his way into some semblance of life. When his very wealthy brother and his sister-in-law are murdered, it almost seems natural, in the tradition of Caine and Able image, for him to confess - none too convincingly - to the murder of the brother. He finds himself at this turning point relating his life to two women. These are a more than usually happy hooker, provided by his dead brother, and the woman who loves him but bravely does not pity him. Both play and ploy for his self-destructive affections.
I did not admire the writing, which, particularly in the first act, took boredom to inordinate lengths, and in the second act jumped around with simplistic ideas as if they were discoveries. But why Hailey is interesting as a playwright, even still interesting, is that he can actually nail a character to the door of life. Not, so far, beyond the door. There were just three people here, and they were boldly characterized, even though they were provided with no inner realities and were puppets on a extraordinarily slender string. All of them could exist, but their existence seems too contrived for life.
The direction and incidental music by Tom O'Horgan had a push and punch to them that characterized his direction of the musical Hair. It was all done with an almost explosive expertise. I also liked the Los Angeles stage design by Bill Stabile.
But what really gave the play its saving graces were the performances of the three leading characters. David Selby, long underestimated yet one of the best actors in the country, was wonderfully tortured, anguished and yet funny as the wheelchair cripple fighting for acceptance with a gleaming-eyed perkiness. The two women in his life were equally, or almost equally, effective.
Gail Strickland as the cool-hearted woman who loves him had a superb elegance of manner and walks in beauty. She is a woman who suggests support without supporting.
As the hooker, Arlene Golonka was utterly charming in her ingenuous behavior and her way of conveying sexuality with a kittenish innocence.
This is one of those plays that might please a few people, and perhaps should please many. But, so far as I am concerned, I Won't Dance will never be my personal pas de deux.
''I don't care what you do with your life, it always helps to be crazy.'' So says Dom, the paraplegic hero of Oliver Hailey's new comedy, ''I Won't Dance.'' He's right, of course: insanity is a good shield for deflecting life's pains and indignities. But sometimes craziness alone isn't enough to do the trick. If you're going to endure Mr. Hailey's preposterous play, to take a handy example, might I suggest that you arrive at the theater armed with ear plugs and a good book?
''I Won't Dance,'' which was unveiled at the Helen Hayes yesterday afternoon, can take its place alongside such other recent Broadway kamikaze missions as ''Animals'' and ''Inacent Black.'' Still, it will be remembered by some for its more bizarre excesses. In league with the director, Tom O'Horgan, Mr. Hailey has given us what may be a genuine first: a fantasy sequence in which two empty wheelchairs seem to engage in symbolic copulation. We also witness a simulated decapitation and a scene in which Dom tries to maul a woman by smashing her against a couch with his plaster-casted leg. And why, you ask, is the hero, who's been disabled since childhood, wearing a cast? Well, that's what happens when you hitch your wheelchair to the rear bumper of a car and then get struck by a tailgater on the Ventura Freeway.
Is this all a prank? Uncertainty sets in from the moment we see Bill Stabile's set, a jerrybuilt Hollywood bungalow surrounded by a few crudely painted palm trees and a curtain of towering vertical blinds. The play's story involves the recent double murder of a socalled ''golden couple'' -Dom's brother and sister-in-law. Dom may or may not have hated his brother, a successful lawyer, and he may or may not have been carrying on with his sister-in law, a best-selling novelist. In any case, he seems to regard their untimely deaths as an excuse to party.
So do the play's other two living characters. Lil (Gail Strickland) is the sister-in-law's sister - an elegant WASP who has flown in from New Mexico, where she apparently spends most of her time engaged in uninhibited sex with a ''full-blooded'' Pueblo Indian named Sam Silverhead. Kay (Arlene Golonka) is an insurance-company worker and failed actress who practices prostitution on the side. Both women are sexually obsessed with Dom, and both had motives to kill his brother and sister-in-law.
As it happens, we never do learn - or care - who murdered Dom's kin. ''I Won't Dance'' does not boast the saving grace of being a whodunit. Mr. Hailey, the author of ''Father's Day,'' seems instead to be attempting a serious black comedy about family relationships, death, sex, love and the handicapped. Or at least I think that's what he's up to. This play could not be more incoherent if its scenes were intentionally played out of sequence.
The oddest moments are those involving Dom. At once whimsical and bitter, he is apparently meant to challenge the audience's sentimental preconceptions about paraplegics. While he wants to be loved, he doesn't want people to assume pitying responsibility for his life. Besides, he's perfectly happy to live in his own active fantasy world. Dom has lots of dreams - all too many of which are acted out here. He dreams he can walk. He dreams he commits murder. He dreams of a wheelchair-dominated utopia where people sing the song ''Did You Ever See a Dream Rolling?,'' go to the movie ''The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Roller'' and keep Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House forever.
Mr. Hailey overwrites the overwrought Dom to the point of irritation. Then David Selby takes over. With his broad Texas accent and large repertory of goofy grins, this outsize actor wields cuteness like a club. Once he enters the dream sequences - which require him to leap out of his wheelchair to sing and dance and flap about in braces or crutches - he starts to look like L'il Abner on an overdose of amphetimines. Mr. O'Horgan, that master of shlock stage effects, completes the picture by drenching Dom's shenanigans in creepy lighting (designed by Craig Miller) and horror-movie music (of the director's own composition).
The one conventional character, the selfish sister, is a pill who defies the smashing-looking Miss Strickland's game efforts to make her interesting. The hooker is a bit more intriguing, if only because she gets to deliver Mr. Hailey's six or seven funny, if utterly irrelevant, jokes about Hollywood and showbiz. (In her nightmares, Kay says, she pictures herself bludgeoning people to death with a copy of Uta Hagen's book ''Respect for Acting.'') While by no means subtle, Miss Golonka does earn our profound sympathy in a role that requires her, among other indignities, to submit to a sound spanking by Mr. Selby. Indeed, by suffering corporal as well as intellectual punishment in ''I Won't Dance,'' this actress almost convinces the audience that it's getting off easy.